Florence & Tuscany: Recommended Books and Movies

By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw

To learn more about Florence and Tuscany past and present, check out a few of these books and films.

Books: Nonfiction

  • The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance (Peter Murray, 1969). Heavily illustrated, this classic presents the architectural life of Italy from the 13th through the 16th century.
  • The City of Florence (R. W. B. Lewis, 1994). The author's 50-year love affair with Florence started in the chaos of World War II; this book is both a personal biography and an informal history of the city.
  • Dark Water (Robert Clark, 2008). Florentines race to save seven centuries of human achievement in the face of the city's destructive 1966 floods.
  • Fortune Is a River (Roger D. Masters, 1998). Two geniuses of the Renaissance — Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci — conspire to reroute the Arno River (unsuccessfully, thankfully).
  • The Hills of Tuscany (Ferenc Máté, 1998). After traveling all over the globe, a writer and his wife try to settle down in the Tuscan countryside.
  • The House of Medici (Christopher Hibbert, 1974). Florence's first family of the Renaissance included power-hungry bankers, merchants, popes, art patrons — and two queens of France.
  • Italian Renaissance Art (Laurie Schneider Adams, 2001). In one of the definitive works on this pivotal period, Adams focuses on the most important and innovative artists and their best works.
  • The Lives of the Artists (Giorgio Vasari, 1550). The man who invented the term "Renaissance" offers anecdote-filled biographies of his era's greatest artists, some of whom he knew personally.
  • The Prince (Niccolò Machiavelli, 1532). The original "how-to" for gaining and maintaining political power, still chillingly relevant after 500 years.
  • A Small Place in Italy (Eric Newby, 1994). A young American couple tries to renovate a Tuscan farmhouse in the late 1960s.
  • The Stones of Florence (Mary McCarthy, 1956). McCarthy applies wit and keen observation to produce a quirky, impressionistic investigation of Florence and its history.
  • A Tuscan Childhood (Kinta Beevor, 1993). The daughter of a bohemian painter reminisces about growing up in pre-war Tuscany among writers like Aldous Huxley and D. H. Lawrence.
  • Under the Tuscan Sun (Frances Mayes, 1996). Mayes' bestseller describes living la dolce vita in the Tuscan countryside (and is better than the movie of the same name).

Books: Fiction

  • The Agony and the Ecstasy (Irving Stone, 1958). This fictional biography of Michelangelo brings to life the great artist's dramatic passions and furies (also a 1965 movie starring Charlton Heston).
  • Birth of Venus (Sarah Dunant, 2003). Dunant follows the life of a Florentine girl who develops feelings for the boy hired to paint the walls of the family's chapel.
  • The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio, 1348). Boccaccio's collection of 100 hilarious, often bawdy tales is a masterpiece of Italian literature and inspired Chaucer, Keats, and Shakespeare.
  • Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, 1321). Dante's epic poem — a journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise — is one of the world's greatest works of literature.
  • Galileo's Daughter (Dava Sobel, 1999). Sobel's historical memoir centers on Galileo's correspondence with his oldest daughter and confidante.
  • The Light in the Piazza (Elizabeth Spencer, 1960). A mother and daughter are intoxicated by the beauty of 1950s Florence (also a 1962 movie and an award-winning Broadway musical).
  • Murder of a Medici Princess (Caroline P. Murphy, 2008). This historical novel recounts life and death of Isabella de Medici, daughter of the duke who ruled Renaissance Florence and Tuscany.
  • Romola (George Eliot, 1863). In this historical novel set in Renaissance Florence, Eliot depicts the awakening of a young woman in the time of the Medicis and Savonarola.
  • A Room with a View (E. M. Forster, 1908). A young Englishwoman visiting Florence finds a socially unsuitable replacement for her snobby fiancé (also a 1985 movie starring Helena Bonham Carter).
  • The Sixteen Pleasures (Robert Hellenga, 1994). Set during the 1966 floods in Florence, a young student discovers an erotic manuscript banned by the pope and lost for centuries.

Movies and TV

  • The Best of Youth (2003). Beginning in the turbulent 1960s, this award-winning miniseries follows the dramatic ups and downs in the lives of two brothers over four decades.
  • Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972). Franco Zeffirelli presents a sensitive account of the life of St. Francis of Assisi, including his friendship with St. Clare.
  • Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance (2004). This PBS miniseries reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly about Florence's first family.
  • Tea with Mussolini (1999). Franco Zeffirelli's look at pre-war Florence involves proper English ladies, a rich American Jew, and the son of a local businessman — all caught in the rise of fascism.
  • Up at the Villa (2000). Based on a W. Somerset Maugham novella, the film follows a wealthy young English woman in 1930s Florence who is brutally confronted by the consequences of her whimsy.
  • Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991). In this adaptation of an E. M. Forster novel, a rich Edwardian widow impulsively marries a poor Tuscan but dies in childbirth, prompting a custody battle.

Gene Openshaw is the co-author of the Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook.